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Scares for Intellectuals! Deb and Dave Tolchinsky Put on The Horror Show


“It’s no fairy tale… this girl really existed. She really levitated. It’s all documented.”

For the most part, the master of horror himself, Stephen King, has already cemented the notion of all-things frightening (the site of a clown still gives us the creeps). But curators Deb and Dave Tolchinsky attempt to redirect our perception of terror in their latest endeavor into the dark side: The Horror Show, a group exhibition opening tomorrow at Dorsky Gallery.

The married duo, who also work together as professors at Northwestern University’s Department of Radio-TV-Film, sought to explore the subtleties of “horror” by excluding the cliches: blood, guts, gore, etc., Subtle or not, some of the images, have you questioning what is it you’re actually perceiving.

Highlights include Christopher Schneberger’s terrifying photographs of a legless young girl trying on her mother’s shoes, Josh Faught’s portrait titled The First Person I Ever Came Out to Was A Convicted Sexual Predator, No. 5, and Ellen Wetmore’s video of a woman whose arm appears to be spontaneously combusting.

We asked the Tolchinsky’s about their fascination with trying to freak us out. Good thing this opening is happening during daylight hours, we’re just saying.

What were your original conceptions of horror before the show?

Deb: Initially, we envisioned a celebratory splatter-fest of wall-to-wall blood, guts, and gore. But then we were reminded that mainstream entertainment already provides an endless source of such imagery.

Dave: We watched an episode of CSI.

Deb: Look at any cop show or a lot of reality TV shows. People eat sheep eyes for cash and glory, families dissect neighbors as a bonding exercise, men saw off their own feet, cadavers are sliced and diced, aliens splayed, prostitutes murdered, and children eviscerated.

Dave: So instead, The Horror Show — a title meant cheekily to evoke old-time B movies as we simultaneously go in quite a different direction — investigates what is nasty, what is ubiquitous, but also what is not apparent: images and sounds that present as banal and benign, as inviting and beautiful, and therefore may ultimately be that much more terrifying.

You mentioned how peoples ideals of what is terrifying has varied throughout the years, mostly from mainstream movies, to now, graphic I’ll-do-anything-for-money reality shows. Do you think it takes more to frighten us?

Deb: We are in a constant state of anxiety because of everything we see and hear and the coping mechanism is to become numb. So yes, it takes more to really evoke a visceral reaction.

Dave: Then again, biology is biology. We’re wired to pump adrenalin when we hear certain sounds, smell certain smells, or can’t make sense of what we’re looking at.

Were these artworks created with the horror theme in mind, or where they selected because they already had a scary element?

Deb: We had the idea for the show and then selected work that fit with the theme. Initially, we imagined work that was more in your face scary, but in the end we were primarily moved by pieces that at first present as beautiful and then kind of creep up on you.

I created a new piece “Man in the Mirror” (above) which springboards off of two previous works as well as the King of Pop’s passing.

Dave: Your piece epitomizes the show for me — Jackson was attractive and frightening, so much in the world and not of the world at all.

Deb: But it’s also about the horror of the mirror. Who are we? What have we become? What are we capable of? Perhaps we no longer see ourselves. We are smoke and mirrors.

Let’s discuss the three photographs by Christopher Schneberger with the legless girl. What are your initial thoughts about this series?

Deb: I think they speak for themselves. They’re stunning, eerie and off-putting. I saw them and had to have them in the show. They evoke innocence and they evoke fairy tales. Not comforting fairy tales, but the original Grimm’s fairy tales.

Dave: I always loved Grimm’s fairy tales. “The devil told the father to cut off his daughter’s arm so he did.” So blank and matter of fact yet so graphic.

Deb: The combination of two things that shouldn’t go together, but do is usually really scary. Two images or an image and a sound or an emotion and an action that don’t match.

Dave: But here’s the kicker: It’s no fairy tale. According to Chris, this girl really existed. She really levitated. It’s all documented. C.1921.

What is it about little girls that freaks us out?

Deb: Little girls are supposedly innocent. Combining innocence with horror is straight up unsettling. And of course the little girls in horror are often adolescent or at least on the cusp of adolescence. Little innocent girls whose bodies and/or powers to transform scare the hell out of us.

Dave: One of the movies that frightened me the most is The Ring. You want to help her and yet avoid her at the same time.

Deb: And then although not quite adolescent there are those little Diane Arbus twins from The Shining.

The images by Stephan Nyktas and Jean Marie Casbarian are quite haunting as well. The use of light and space feels very threatening since we can’t make out what exactly is happening in the photograph. What are your thoughts about these pictures?

Deb: We’re programmed to be afraid of what we can’t see or quite make out. With Stephen’s work, I think it’s the scale or rather our inability to read the scale. It’s difficult to pin anything down as a specific size.

Dave: It’s vaginal not in a good way. Freud and dark spaces and turning the inside out and outside in and all that kind of thing.

Please explain the painting of the kitty cat.

Dave: What’s there to explain? Look at it. It’s terrifying. All cats are terrifying.

Deb: Except our cat.

Dave: That’s what he wants you to think.

Deb: Jeff Sconce’s piece, he references “To Catch a Predator” where they lure would-be child molesters to a motel and then Hansen, the show host, interrogates and shames them on camera. Sconce appropriates audio from a particular episode where the predator asks a girl to perform a sex act with a cat.

Dave: It’s the only NC-17 work in the show. Parents beware.

Deb: Again, it’s the combination of a maudlin, thrift-store cat picture with the horror of the soundtrack. It’s also the humorous delivery and ironic sounds that Jeff mixes in opposition to the criminal/violent content.

Dave: You don’t know whether to be repelled or laugh. Is it pornography, or a comment on pornography? It’s uncomfortable and provocative.

Opens at 2, August 7th, Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs, 11-03 45th Avenue, Long Island City, 718-937-6317, free.


This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 6, 2009


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